The purple-backed sunbeam hummingbird (Aglaeactis aliciae) is a small hummingbird found in the Andes mountains of South America. With its vibrant purple back and bright orange-yellow breast, it is one of the most colorful hummingbirds in the world.
The purple-backed sunbeam typically measures 8-9 cm in length and weighs 4-5 grams. As its name suggests, the male has brilliant iridescent purple feathers on its back, rump, and uppertail coverts. The underparts are vivid orange-yellow on the throat, breast and belly, with some olive-green on the sides. The tail is forked and steel-blue. Females lack the bright purple back, instead having green upperparts, but retain the spectacular orange-yellow underparts. Both sexes have a straight black bill. Juveniles resemble adult females but with buffer throat and breast feathers.
Distribution and Habitat
The purple-backed sunbeam is found along the Andes mountains of South America, predominantly in Peru and Bolivia. Its habitat consists of humid elfin forests and woodlands at elevations between 3000-4000 meters. It prefers areas with plenty of flowering plants and a dense vegetation cover. Within its elevational range, it may move to lower elevations in the winter to escape the harshest weather.
Like all hummingbirds, the purple-backed sunbeam feeds on nectar from flowers using its long slender bill. It favors flowers with the richest nectar, often found in shrubs and small trees such as fuchsias, along with herbs and vines. It uses its specialized long tongue to lap up the nectar. The purple-backed sunbeam also consumes small insects and spiders to obtain proteins and other nutrients. It feeds while hovering in front of flowers, sometimes clinging briefly to the plants. The high metabolic rate of hummingbirds requires them to feed frequently throughout the day.
Behavior and Life Cycle
The purple-backed sunbeam is solitary and territorial. Males establish feeding territories, aggressively chasing other males or even larger intruders from their areas. Females may also defend areas if food resources are limited. Despite their small size, purple-backed sunbeams are feisty and will try driving off much bigger birds!
Males perform elaborate courtship displays to attract females, flying back and forth in arcs while making buzzing and twittering sounds with their tail feathers. Once paired, the female builds a small cup-shaped nest out of soft plant fibers and spider webs, attached to a branch or trunk. She lays just two tiny white eggs. She incubates the eggs alone for about 16-18 days until they hatch. The chicks are born blind and helpless but grow quickly on a diet of regurgitated insects and nectar provided by the female. They leave the nest at 20-28 days old.
Threats and Conservation
Habitat loss from deforestation poses the biggest threat to the purple-backed sunbeam, as clearing of forest reduces available nesting sites and food sources. Climate change may also affect the delicate high-altitude ecosystems the birds depend on. However, the species remains relatively common across its range. Parts of its habitat are protected in national parks and reserves. As striking and beloved birds, purple-backed sunbeams can serve as flagships to boost conservation of Andean cloud forests. Ongoing monitoring of populations is needed, especially at the limits of the elevational distribution. Providing artificial feeders with sucrose water may help supplement food supplies if climate pressures reduce natural nectar availability. With appropriate habitat protection, this shining jewel of the Andes should continue to brighten the mountains.
– Small hummingbird, 8-9 cm long, found in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia
– Males have brilliant iridescent purple back and orange-yellow underparts, females green upperparts
– Inhabits high-elevation elfin forests and woodlands (3000-4000m)
– Feeds on nectar and small invertebrates
– Solitary and territorial, males perform courtship displays
– Females build nests with 2 eggs, incubated for 16-18 days
– Habitat loss and climate change are threats, some habitat is protected
– Species remains relatively common, monitoring and habitat conservation needed
The Splendid Diversity of Hummingbirds
With over 300 described species, hummingbirds are among the most diverse bird families on Earth. They are restricted to the Americas, with most species in South America. Their great species richness reflects both the tremendous diversity of tropical habitats in South America and the specialized adaptations that allow different hummingbird species to thrive in distinct ecological niches. Here are just a few examples of their spectacular diversity:
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest living bird, measuring just 5-6 cm. This tiny Cuban species lives in forests and urban gardens. At the other extreme, the Giant Hummingbird of the South American Andes is over 20 cm long with a wingspan of nearly 30 cm—making it nearly as big as a crow! The Sword-billed Hummingbird has an exaggerated 10 cm bill, evolved to feed on deeply tubular flowers. Fiery-tailed Awlbills use their distinctive upturned beaks to feed on flowers under leaves or moss. To survive cold Andean nights, Hillstar hummingbirds go into torpor, lowering their metabolic rate and body temperature. Chiloean can adapt their feeding style when nectar levels change, switching between perching or hovering. Marvelous Spatuletails have racquet-shaped tails four times their body length. Dead-leaf Mouthbrooders incubate their eggs in their mouth! Shining sunbeams live at extreme elevations up to 5000 meters. Under UV light, many hummingbird feathers glow bright red or orange, visible to other birds but not humans.
Clearly, hummingbirds display a spectacular array of adaptations in form and function. Their great diversity arose as species specialized to utilize different food sources, spread across challenging environments, and occupied various ecological niches. Yet they retain their unifying essence—tiny, fast-flying dynamos exhibiting endless energy. We are exceptionally fortunate to share the planet with these flying jewels. Protecting habitats from the lowland rainforests to the cloud forests of the Andes is crucial for preserving hummingbird diversity. As pollinators and intricate parts of food webs, hummingbirds contribute to sustaining healthy ecosystems. More than a visual marvel, they are an essential component of the living world.
The Shimmering Beauty of Hummingbird Feathers
Hummingbird feathers are a key reason these birds are among the most beautiful and visually striking creatures on Earth. Their feathers exhibit an incredible, shimmering iridescence unlike any other birds. Here’s a closer look at how hummingbird feathers produce such dazzling effects:
Iridescence is caused by complex nanostructures within the feathers that reflect specific wavelengths of light. In hummingbirds, plate-like melanosomes containing melanin are stacked in precise layers. When light hits the feathers, some wavelengths get reflected back while others get absorbed. This selective reflection creates the flashy iridescent colors we see.
By shifting the feathers even a tiny bit, hummingbirds can shift the colors produced by constructive interference of the reflected waves. So the colors appear to change dramatically with viewing angle. This explains why the throat of an Anna’s hummingbird flashes brilliant magenta one moment, then glowing emerald green when the bird turns it head.
Many male hummingbirds have specialized feathers on their throats called gorgets that are intensely iridescent. They use these in courtship displays to attract females. The Sword-billed hummingbird has an extraordinary sweeping iridescent blue and green gorget that it can move from side to side during its mating dance.
Female hummingbirds lack elaborate gorgets. But they still have incredibly iridescent green, blue and purple feathers on their heads, backs, and bellies—like polished gemstones. The Violet-tailed Sylph shimmers in violets and greens even in shadowy forests. Non-iridescent patches are called auriculars; the Ruby-throated hummingbird has small black auriculars on its otherwise glittering ruby throat.
The iridescence acts as a signal for mate attraction and territorial defense. But it may also play more functional roles. The sheen makes the tiny birds highly visible as they dart through dense vegetation. Iridescence also produces a feather surface with useful antibacterial, water-repellent, and abrasion-resistant properties.
Next time you manage to observe a hummingbird sitting still, take a moment to admire its scintillating feathers. The secret nanostructures and intelligent material design that produce this natural photonic brilliance hold lessons for scientists still trying to recreate such shimmering colors artificially.
Fantastical Feeding: Hovering Flight in Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are most famous for their incredible ability to hover in place while feeding on nectar from flowers. How do these tiny birds perform this energetically demanding feat that even most insects can’t accomplish? Here’s a look at the unique adaptations that power their specialized hovering flight:
– High wingbeat frequency – Hummingbird wings beat up to 80 times per second, far higher than any other bird. This generates the lift needed to stay airborne. The wings move in a figure-eight pattern that creates lift on both the upstroke and downstroke.
– Rotating wings – The humerus bones in the wings can rotate a full 360 degrees at the shoulder joint. This allows the wings to maintain an optimal angle as they beat back and forth.
– Inverted flight muscles – Most bird flight muscles attach from the breastbone to the upper arm bones. But hummingbirds have muscles connecting the breastbone to the wrist that let the wings move in the complex motions required for hovering.
– Large muscle mass – Up to a third of their tiny bodies is made up of flight muscle, the highest fraction in the bird world. This provides the extreme power output required for hovering.
– Expansive shoulders – Broad shoulders anchored by expanded collar bones provide a sturdy base to support the powerful downstroke.
– Exceptional metabolism – At rest, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any animals. During flight, their metabolic rates can reach up to 34 ml of oxygen consumed per gram of muscle per minute, powering their relentless wingbeats.
– Effective heat dissipation – To avoid overheating, they have adaptations like nasal heat exchange to cool the blood going to the brain.
– Optimal feather shape – Their feather shafts are narrow, improving aerodynamics. They lack the microscopic barbules that lock feathers together in other birds, keeping the feathers flexible.
With their unique anatomy and physiology that enables them to hover like mini-helicopters, hummingbirds can precisely maintain position while extracting nectar, allowing them to exploit food sources other birds simply can’t. The secrets of how these tiny dynamos achieve such feat of sustained hovering flight are still being uncovered by researchers seeking to understand the biomechanical marvel of hummingbird flight.
Myth and Magic: Hummingbirds in Indigenous Traditions
Hummingbirds have captivated human cultures for millennia and play a central role in folklore and mythology of Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Many Indigenous groups consider hummingbirds sacred creatures with magical properties and symbolism.
For the Aztec civilization, hummingbirds represented vigor and energy, as well as the soul’s journey into the afterlife. The god Huitzilopochtli, whose name means “hummingbird of the left,” was depicted as a hummingbird or a warrior with hummingbird feathers on his head.
In the Andes, the Inca and Quechua people viewed hummingbirds as messengers who could transport human prayers to the spirit realm. Hummingbird amulets called illas were prized as lucky charms. The glittering Patagonian hummingbird was associated with the sun deity Inti.
In Brazilian Tupi myths, hummingbird charms womankind with his stunning colors after being sent from the sky by the goddess Arasy. Various Amazon peoples believed hummingbirds served as spirit guides, and their wingbeats connected the natural and supernatural worlds.
For the Navajo, hummingbirds represented joy and renewal. These bold birds played a role in healing ceremonies, and warriors incorporated their feathers into ceremonial garb. In Cherokee tradition, hummingbird is considered the most sacred of birds, its feathers used in prayer sticks and medicine rituals.
Across North America, hummingbirds have been honored in the regalia, dances, and oral histories of diverse Indigenous nations. Their captivating nature made them an inspiration for art, jewelry, songs, stories, and metaphysical beliefs. Even as cultures change, for many Native American peoples the hummingbird retains its ancient magic as a creature of wonder and spirituality. The reverence for hummingbirds connects Indigenous cultures across generations through a shared appreciation of these dazzling birds.
Threats Facing Hummingbirds
While hummingbirds seem delicate, they are resilient birds that have adapted to a wide range of environments across the Americas. However, even these tough survivors now face growing threats from human activities:
– Habitat loss – Clearing of natural vegetation for farms, housing and logging removes crucial food sources and nesting sites for hummingbirds.
– Climate change – Flowering cycles are shifting, nectar production declining, and climate extremes more frequent as climate warms, impacting hummingbird food availability.
– Pesticides – Chemical use can reduce insect populations hummingbirds depend on for protein and may contaminate nectar sources.
– Window collisions – Hummingbirds are drawn to fly toward reflective glass, frequently resulting in lethal collisions with windows or buildings.
– Diseases – Hummingbird populations may be impacted by diseases like avian malaria in altered environments.
– Nest predation – Outdoor cats are devastating nesting hummingbirds.
– Unseasonable cold snaps – With a high surface-area-to-weight ratio, hummingbirds lose heat rapidly when temperatures drop unexpectedly.
– Competition with invasive species – Introduced bees, ants, and other nectar feeders may compete with hummingbirds at flowers.
Protecting remaining undisturbed habitat areas and advocating for sustainable development policies that maintain crucial corridors between habitat patches can help counteract some of these threats. Homeowners can support hummingbirds by planting native flowers and keeping cats indoors. Reducing pesticide usage, putting up window decals, providing sugar water in times of scarcity, and participating in citizen science monitoring programs can also aid hummingbird conservation. The resilience of hummingbirds is inspiring, but they still require our help to flourish in the face of growing human-caused pressures.
The Sparkling Magic of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds
In much of eastern North America, the arrival of tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds signals the start of spring. Their iridescent emerald bodies and brilliant crimson throats bring pops of living color back into the world. Here is a closer look at these energetic migratory birds that brighten our days.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds breed across Canada and the Eastern United States during the spring and summer months. By late summer, they begin their remarkable migration south, traveling alone rather than in flocks. Some fly nonstop across the entire Gulf of Mexico—a 500 mile journey for a bird that weighs less than a nickel! They can reach Central America by autumn, though some may overwinter in the southernmost U.S. states.
Male ruby-throats aggressively defend feeding territories around nectar sources like flower gardens or sugar-water feeders. Their courtship display features dramatic aerial power dives and flights in looping U-shaped patterns. If a predator approaches, males perform distraction displays to lure the threat away from females and chicks.
The nest is a compact cup of plant down and spider silk, stretched across a tree branch high above the ground. The female lays just 1-3 tiny white eggs and incubates them for 10-14 days. Chicks fledge about three weeks after hatching. Ruby-throats beat their wings up to 200 times per second in flight and can hover in place to drink nectar.
Beyond their beauty and speed, ruby-throated hummingbirds play a vital role as pollinators for wildflowers, fruit trees, and spring ephemerals across their range. In autumn, a new generation migrates south, the cycle beginning again. Though small, the energetic ruby-throat lives life to the fullest, reminding us to appreciate the wonder that each new day brings. If we provide habitat, minimize threats, and sustain the ecosystems they depend on, these sparkling symbols of nature’s resilience will continue to return each spring.
Hummingbird Conservation: How You Can Help
Hummingbirds face many threats from human activities, but there are actions we can take to support these special birds:
– Plant native flowers, shrubs, and trees that provide nectar and nesting sites. Choose native species adapted to your region and with flowers favored by hummingbirds.
– Avoid pesticides in your garden that can kill insects hummingbirds eat or contaminate nectar sources. Provide water sprayers, baths or drippers to offer clean water.
– Put up feeders with a diluted sugar water solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Don’t use food coloring, and clean feeders regularly to avoid mold.
– Prevent window collisions by placing decals, screens or ultraviolet-reflecting glass on windows. Close curtains and blinds where possible.
– Keep cats indoors to protect hummingbirds, and prevent outdoor cats from accessing nest areas. Don’t use sticky traps or insecticides.
– Support parks, protected forests, and other natural areas that preserve habitat through conservation programs. Push for policies limiting deforestation.
– Join a community science program to help track hummingbird populations and migration patterns. Report hummingbird band encounters.
– Educate others about the threats hummingbirds face and how our daily actions can help or harm them. Spread appreciation for their role as pollinators.
Small actions can make a difference for hummingbirds. While providing sugar water is not a substitute for flowers, feeders may help sustain hummingbirds potentially impacted by urbanization, climate change, and habitat loss. With care and community commitment, we can create healthier environments that allow hummingbirds to thrive.